Is Liberalism the Heir of Christianity?

Shadia B. Drury

In an effort to defend religion against the well-aimed broadsides of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, some have argued that the “new atheists” are liberals who are disturbingly unaware of the debt that their values owe to Christianity. In particular, John Gray and Terry Eagleton maintain that the celebration of liberty and individuality has its roots in Christian theology. In short, the cornerstone of liberalism has its source in Christianity. I will explain why his argument is spurious.

Philip Pullman, one of the great anti-theists of our time, presents the heroine of his Northern Lights (the original British title; The Golden Compass is its North American and Hollywood film incarnation) as a child whose natural intelligence and goodness make her the embodiment of courage, confidence, and intelligence in a world dominated by the unsurpassed power of the evil Magisterium (a not-so-veiled reference to the Catholic Church). The latter indoctrinates children and fills them with irrational fears and superstitions that make them gullible, cowardly, dependent, irrational, and servile. The young girl manages to defy the evil Magisterium thanks to her intellect, courage, autonomy, and magnanimity.

Pullman’s heroine is the sort of child that every parent would love to have. But in “The Atheist Delusion” (Guardian, March 15, 2008), John Gray takes the author to task on the grounds that liberal atheists such as Pullman are “derivative of Christianity” because their celebration of freedom and personal autonomy is biblical in origin. According to Gray, the primacy of the freedom of the will has been the legacy of faith since the story of Genesis. In Reason, Faith, & Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), Terry Eagleton makes the same case against Dawkins and Hitchens—all these liberal atheists supposedly owe an enormous debt to Christianity. But do they? Is Genesis a celebration of human freedom and individual autonomy? I will argue that it most certainly is not.

In Genesis, God created Adam and Eve with free will to choose between obedience and disobedience of his commands, not between good and evil—a choice they could not make because they lacked adequate knowledge. Not wanting them to acquire such knowledge, God commanded them not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So their freedom, such as it was, amounted to listening to God and remaining eternally dependent on him or listening to the serpent, who bid them to acquire knowledge and start thinking for themselves. Because of their native intelligence and curiosity, Adam and Eve were naturally attracted to the message of the serpent. If God wanted Adam and Eve to remain in the childlike state of dependence and obey him eternally, he should have made them without too much intelligence or curiosity. As Karen Armstrong has rightly pointed out in her work on Genesis (In the Beginning), the fact that God created beings with intelligence and curiosity and then told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge showed an abysmal lack of insight. But on the other hand, it could have been intentional, in which case their disobedience was itself part of the divine plan. If the latter was the case, then punishing them for their disobedience was disgraceful on God’s part.

In his Early Theological Writings, Hegel rightly maintained that had Adam and Eve obeyed God, they would have remained in an eternally puerile state—like children who must depend on the commands of their parents because they have not sufficient reason of their own to guide them. According to Hegel, Adam and Eve did the right thing in following the advice of the serpent, who was telling them the truth. Eating of the tree of knowledge did open their eyes and did give them the knowledge necessary to conduct their lives independently. But it is precisely this intellectual independence—this genuine freedom—that the church and its apologists have always opposed.

St. Augustine, an authoritative figure in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, maintained that the status of freedom of the will in Genesis is precarious. Augustine believed that God created Adam and Eve free to choose between good (defined as obeying God) and evil (defined as disobeying him). But in Augustine’s view, that freedom was short-lived; after the fall, Adam and Eve were no longer free but “in bondage to sin.” They were no longer capable of choosing the good but were chronically wicked—this is the foundation of the doctrine of original sin. For Augustine, human nature is altogether at odds with the moral law; any goodness it exhibits is the result of supernatural assistance—fallen humanity cannot take credit for any decency it may display. So, even if we ignore the prohibition on the tree of knowledge and consider Adam and Eve free to choose between good and evil (not just obedience and disobedience), the Christian tradition regards their liberty as short-lived.

Part of the attraction of Islam, which is so perplexing for Christians, is its insistence that God created human beings free to choose between good and evil—an ability that was not destroyed by the events of the fall. We have it still. This is why it makes sense to hold human beings accountable for their sins on the Day of Judgment. The appeal of Islam is connected to its ability to make God somewhat more reasonable and just.

Long before the rise of Islam, Pelagius, an English monk, criticized Augustine’s concept of “bondage to sin” on the grounds that human beings cannot be held responsible for their actions if they did not have freedom of the will before and after the fall. The Catholic Church denounced Pelagius as a heretic (416 ce) and upheld the Augustinian interpretation of Genesis with its “bondage to sin.” Far from denouncing the doctrine, the leading figures of the Reformation—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Bunyan—affirmed humanity’s “bondage to sin” despite its absurdity. For them, human autonomy spells ruin; human beings must blindly follow the dictates of God, and they can’t even do that without supernatural assistance. So, the claim that liberalism derives its esteem of human freedom and autonomy from Christianity is entirely spurious.

The liberal conception of morality is a product of the Enlightenment. It is the antithesis of mindless obedience motivated by fear of hellfire. Immanuel Kant, a classic champion of human freedom and autonomy, argued that the Enlightenment was a triumph over puerility; it was a “task” by which humanity may achieve dignity through the autonomous recognition of the universal moral law inscribed in the heart and followed freely out of a sense of duty, not fear of punishment.

Ask yourself if you would rather be the sort of person who does the right thing easily because it gives you pleasure and because doing something malicious and despicable would compromise your dignity and humanity—or the sort of person who must pray to God to triumph over the demons within that make everything sordid and vile supremely appealing, since you are “in bondage to sin”? These are two profoundly antithetical moral visions—one modern, the other medieval. One rests on the reality of human freedom and responsibility, the other on the fiction of original sin.

Contrary to the claims of its neoconservative critics, liberalism is not a form of moral relativism. It recognizes universal evils such as cruelty, dishonesty, ignorance, and bigotry. It also recognizes self-regarding vices such as drunkenness and other forms of self-indulgence. Its celebration of individuality is based on its recognition of the plurality of the good. There is more than one right way, m
ore than one sort of decent life. It is up to individuals to choose the right life in view of their opportunities, abilities, and circumstances. But in the Christian imagination, there is no such plurality. Since “the good” is singular, all the good people must be alike; any deviation from the norm must be due to wickedness. This explains why, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell is the most interesting place because all sinners are unique individuals. In contrast, Heaven is the most boring place because all the good people are alike. It is no wonder that the Christian heaven is a testimony to the utter failure of the imagination—its tasteless harps, endless hosannas to the Almighty, and insipid monotony leave its occupants with nothing better than the sadistic enjoyment of watching the damned writhe in hell.

In short, Christianity is not a religion that celebrates either freedom or autonomy. In the absence of these, all sorts of human virtues fall by the wayside. No one understands this better than Pullman, who begs us to stop terrifying our children to death as a means of making them virtuous. Virtue requires the cultivation of their natural intelligence and courage—courage to choose the right and the good in the face of formidable odds, such as the power and authority of the Magisterium. More often than not, religious education cultivates sheepish, gullible, and fearful children who cannot stand up to the dastardly clerical cunning that so many sexually abused boys know so well.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


In an effort to defend religion against the well-aimed broadsides of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, some have argued that the “new atheists” are liberals who are disturbingly unaware of the debt that their values owe to Christianity. In particular, John Gray and Terry Eagleton maintain that the celebration of liberty and individuality has its …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.